SF appears ready to increase oversight of government surveillance

Legislation bans facial recognition technology, requires board approval for surveillance equipment purchase

San Francisco residents may soon have more say over how and when The City government conducts surveillance.

Under legislation introduced by Supervisor Aaron Peskin, city departments will have to create plans for how they use surveillance technology and win approval from the Board of Supervisors before proceeding.

The proposal appears to have the support to pass at the full board next week, after the Rules Committee unanimously approved the legislation Monday.

“This is really about giving policy makers the information that they need to safeguard these important technologies from abuse — not from their use, but from their abuse,” Peskin said.

Departments would have to disclose annually how they have used surveillance technology for the board and the public to ensure they adhered to the plans. The legislation also outright bans the use of facial recognition technology by city departments.

A number of other Bay Area agencies and cities including Oakland have similar laws in place for the oversight of surveillance. The legislation has the backing of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.

“Right now, there is a pressing need to act,” said Matt Cagle, an attorney with the ACLU of Northern California. “The harms of unchecked surveillance are very real and they often impact immigrant and communities of color disproportionately.”

Not everyone was in favor on Monday. The citizen group Stop Crime SF raised a number of concerns, arguing the proposal could jeopardize the Police Department’s use of surveillance footage from residents and private businesses.

But Peskin and other board members said this was a misunderstanding, and Peskin amended the legislation Monday to clarify that the Police Department can both receive and use the footage from residents and businesses.

Frank Noto, president of Stop Crime SF, also argued The City should exempt large events and said he worried the process could impact public safety. “Some say that the ordinance doesn’t stop surveillance, but it does after certain deadlines pass,” Noto said.

Peskin said that “if we have this type of oversight and the users of that technology know that they have to be held to account, it will actually make our communities more safe, not less safe.”

Under the proposal, departments would have 60 days to submit to the Committee on Information Technology their existing inventory of surveillance technology, which they must post on their website. The city departments must also within 120 days submit use policies to the board for approval to continue using surveillance technologies.

To purchase new surveillance technology, the departments must submit to COIT a “Surveillance Impact Report” that offers details like cost, how it works, how it has fared in other places and how they will protect civil liberties.

COIT will then develop a “Surveillance Technology Policy” for the board to consider.

In approving the plans, the board must weigh whether the “benefits … outweigh its costs,” if the plan “will safeguard civil liberties” and whether it would have a “disparate impact on any community or group.”

Beginning next fiscal year, the City Controller’s Office would have to audit departments to determine compliance.

Peskin has four co-sponsors of the bill with board president Norman Yee and Supevsiors Shamann Walton, Matt Haney and Hillary Ronen. And on Monday. Supervisor Gordon Mar, who sits on the committte, voted to back it. That means there are the at least six votes on the board required to pass it.

In voting for the legislation, Walton said, “We have to protect the rights of everyone.”

“Our role is to make sure that we reduce negative interactions with law enforcement,” Walton said, adding that “we should not be giving anyone carte blanche to put anything in place without it being vetted.”

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